Lawson Academy of the Arts Rebuilds Dance Program with International Focus

Lawson Academy of the Arts Rebuilds Dance Program with International Focus

Sunitha Raj, artistic director at Nrithyanjali School of Dance in Greenville, teaches a class to students in Converse College's Lawson Academy of the Arts. Photo credit: Tim Kimzey of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal

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New creative juices are flowing at Converse College’s Lawson Academy of the Arts, where three acclaimed dance instructors are helping re-launch the dance program with a focus on international genres. This fall, they will teach classes for children and adults in Indian dance, Latin-inspired Ballroom, and African Dance and Drumming. Online registration opens Aug. 1.

The academy has offered few dance classes the last several years, following the departure of a beloved teacher who built a sizeable following for the program. But last year, longtime Converse music professor Valerie MacPhail took the helm as director of the Lawson Academy and decided to rebuild. Seeking a direction that compliments offerings of the larger dance schools in the region, she collaborated with Converse dance instructor Naina Dewan, who joined the college’s Department of Theatre and Dance last year. The pair developed a new vision focusing on international dance, and assembled three of the region’s most highly respected international dance artists to lead the charge.

“We are excited about the possibilities this direction holds, and believe it will appeal to our current students as well as to new students.”

Sunitha Raj, who owns the Nrithyanjali School of Dance in Greenville, S.C. and has appeared in more than 40 South India movies, will teach Indian dance for elementary students ages 7-12, and for teens and adults.  She will teach primarily ‘Bollywood’ style, but include basic classical Indian dance. While Classical Indian dance draws its essence from emotions and Indian culture and traditions dating back over 3,000 years, Bollywood draws from innovative dance styles from all around the world, including jazz, hip-hop, Mediterranean, and Latin, all blended with aspects of Indian classical and folk dances. Raj has given hundreds of dance performances and taught across the world during her 25-year career.

Adama Dembele, a master djembe player from Ivory Coast, West Africa who lives and teaches in Asheville, N.C., will offer African Dance and Drumming for ages 6 and above. This high-energy class encourages creativity and expression while also building teamwork, stamina, coordination, and motor skills. Students of all ages will be immersed in a rich cultural art form while gaining focus and confidence. Dembele is a 33rd generation djembe player who came to the United States to share his family’s sacred art. He frequently gives dance and drum workshops for school children, and leads the music ensemble Zansa, which can be found performing original afropop and afrobeat music at eclectic festivals and brew pubs across the region.

Crystal Chang, who owns Studio C in Greenville, S.C., will teach a Ballroom dance class for adults called American Style Rhythm.  It draws on the Latin genres of Cha Cha and Salsa along with American Swing, taking an approach that allows for more freedom and expression. In this action-packed class, adult students will learn posture and movement as well as basic patterns for the dance styles. Chang was classically trained in ballet, but expanded into other styles as she began to pursue dance as a career. She owned a successful studio franchise in New York before moving to Greenville, and can be found teaching and performing at numerous Upstate venues and festivals.

MacPhail’s enthusiasm for the new direction of the Lawson Academy’s dance program is palpable. “This concept is a wonderful continuation of some key initiatives at Converse College, such as the Converse International School and our focus on incorporating diverse learning opportunities and global perspectives across the curriculum,” she said. “We are excited about the possibilities this direction holds, and believe it will appeal to our current students as well as to new students.”

About the Lawson Academy of the Arts

The Lawson Academy of the Arts operates under the umbrella of the Converse College School of the Arts and has served the Spartanburg and surrounding communities for nearly 75 years. Rich in history and known for educational excellence in music and dance, the Lawson Academy today builds on its past while looking forward to meeting the creative needs of our 21st century world. Group classes and private study opportunities are offered for both youth and adults during the academic year, and the Fine Arts Day Camp serves children ages 4 through rising 6th grade during the summer.


Photo credit: Tim Kimzey of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal